Parliament Reform and Electoral Reform

  • May. 8th, 2015 at 11:02 AM
X-post from [personal profile] penlessej .

There is a lot of talk post-UK General Election about the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system and its democratic nature. UKIP, for example, received only one seat despite receiving 13% of the votes across the entire United Kingdom. The debate over electoral reform away from FPTP has significant linkages to Canadian politics because we have the same electoral systems and the same types of arguments are made concerning the need for reformation.

In my opinion, before we can talk about electoral reform we need to talk about parliamentary reform. We need to decide how we want the government to be formed, what role the Prime Minister (and other party leaders) will play and how the legislature will be used to determine the government-of-the-day. As it currently stands, Canada is a parliamentary democracy with a bicameral system at parliament. The system is similar to that of the United Kingdom, in that individual constituencies hold elections and send representatives (in Canada called Members of Parliament) to the House of Commons under various party banners. Once those elections are complete across the country, the total number of representatives from each respective party in the House of Commons is tallied up and the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons is asked for form the government by the Governor-General of Canada. There are two important aspects of this system that stand-out from other systems around the world; first, we do not elect our head of government directly and secondly the government is formed out of the legislature (not separate from the legislature). The current FPTP electoral system supports that mechanism for the formation of government. Individual electors elect their representative in a race within their own riding. What is happening collectively across the country is irrelevant because each riding is a separate election.

The explanation above captures how the system is designed to function. In reality, most Canadians will tell you that they plan on voting for “Justin Trudeau”, “Stephen Harper”, “Thomas Mulcair” or “Elizabeth May” when they do not live anywhere near the ridings those leaders stand in for election. And party campaigns are geared to focus on the so-called leadership tour. In most cases, political parties refer to their teams by the leaders’ name just to emphasis their important role within the party. The individual candidates running in each riding essentially become irrelevant from a personal perspective because all most Canadians care about is the party name listed after the candidates name on the ballot and the leader of said party. This has profound implications for the political system and how we understand its function.

In post-election analysis you will often here that such-and-such party received x number of seats and x number of the popular vote. The popular vote being the total number of votes cast across the entire country for that particular party. However, in FPTP, the popular vote is irrelevant because General Elections are not conducted across the country as a whole but across the country in each individual riding. Thus, the NDP may pick up a significant number of the popular vote across the country, but have their seat count translate much lower than a direct translation from just the popular vote. On the flip-side, majority governments in Canada can be achieved with %35 of the popular vote. Democrats (not the New kind) will point out that this is an undemocratic system because a minority of collective voters are essentially ruling the country with a majority. However, under FPTP that observation is flawed because it assumes that the popular vote is the means to measure support across the country, and in reality that is not the case. In fact, FPTP should rightly be seen as the most democratic form of elections because it breaks down the nation into more closely geographically defined boundaries and permits Canadians to become more engaged at a personal level with their MP.

The problem exists in how our political system functions; which is why I stated earlier that what we need to do is rethink our parliamentary system before we talk electoral reform. Individual MPs that are elected to the House of Commons are essentially placeholders for each respective leader and represent their pull within the legislature. Because of strongly whipped voting, a political culture that sees voting against the party as disloyal and a very powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) we have essentially over three hundred people who are elected and paid by the people of Canada to listen to what a handful of other elected people have to say and nothing more. That is a problem. To add insult to injury, a Prime Minister with a majority government wields power beyond comprehension in any democratic society. The PMO coordinates government activity within the House of Commons, within the Senate and pressures the Head of State, the Governor-General as required. The PMO also guides the Privy Council and oversees the vast majority of federal appointments without any oversight or input from the legislature. The PMO also takes a strong role in the formation of the governing party as a whole, including directing backbench MPs. This is a problem. While having your government embedded in the legislature has become a defining feature of responsible government in Canada, it has hindered the ability of the legislature to effectively keep the government accountable. Members of the governing party who are elected to the House of Commons, but do not sit in government, should not be blindly following government direction simply because it is their party who is in power. That is the opposite of what the primary responsibility of every MP is and that is to keep the government to account on all of its activities.

So we have an electoral system that is supposed to, in theory, run one way but, in practise, run another. And we have a parliamentary system that is supposed to, in theory, run one way but, in practice, run another. The reason we need to discuss parliamentary reform before we discuss electoral reform is because we need to decide what kind of a parliament we want so that our electoral system can complement that system. So if we want the PMO and respective party leaders to have so much power over their MPs, than maybe we need a national system for electing party leaders and the Prime Minister. If we are content to disregard local representation and instead move toward a system that counts ballots pan-Canada.

My personal opinion is that we should not reform our electoral system. Rather, we should reform our parliamentary system to get back to the roots of traditional parliamentary democracy. Party leaders and the PMO should not hold the amount of power that they do over MPs. An elected Member of Parliament should never be coerced into voting one-way or another and the MPs from the governing party should never blindly follow the government-of-the-day. Canadians should demand greater power and great autonomy from their MPs and should not be so quick to chastise MPs who vote against party lines and vote in accordance with their electors. For me, FPTP is the most democratic form of elections because it brings this vast country close to home. The more democratic a government is, the closer it is to the people. And it is because of that closeness that it becomes democratic, not the other way around. For that reason, any system that implements party lists or candidate tables cannot be more democratic than FPTP because these lists are put together hundreds of kilometers away from the electors it affects. That is a problem for me. The first step to speaking of reform requires an understanding of the system. That being said, any quote of the popular vote in a FPTP electoral system should be rightly corrected as being an improper figure to use to determine the democratic nature of the election. FPTP rightly never factors what is happening in the rest of the country. This is reflective of how parliament is designed to work, now we just need to reform parliament and it will all make much more sense.

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